The United Arab Emirates have been in talks with the Taliban to run the Kabul airport, facing their Gulf rival Qatar in a diplomatic struggle to influence the new Afghan rulers, according to four sources familiar with the matter.
UAE officials have had a series of talks with the group in recent weeks to discuss the operation of the airport which serves as the main air link from landlocked Afghanistan to the world, foreign diplomats told Reuters based in the Gulf region.
The talks show how countries are seeking to assert their influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan even as the die-hard Islamist group remains largely an international pariah and its government is not officially recognized by any country.
The Emiratis are keen to counter the diplomatic weight enjoyed by Qatar, according to sources who refused to give their name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Qataris helped run Hamid Karzai International Airport with Turkey after playing a major role in evacuation efforts following the chaotic US withdrawal in August, and said they were ready to resume the operations.
However, the Taliban have not yet formalized an agreement with Qatar, said the four diplomats.
A senior UAE foreign ministry official said the UAE, which previously operated Kabul airport under the US-backed Afghan republic, “remains committed to continuing to assist in its operation” to ensure a humanitarian access and safe passage.
Abu Dhabi also contributed to recent evacuation efforts.
Taliban and Qatari authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
Two of the diplomats said the Taliban had also asked for financial assistance from the UAE, although they added that it was not clear if this was related to the talks at the airport.
UAE Foreign Ministry official Salem Al Zaabi, director of international security cooperation, did not respond to whether the UAE was considering providing financial assistance to the Taliban.
A key issue that has yet to be resolved between the Taliban and potential airport operators is who would provide security at the site, the four diplomats said. The Taliban say they don’t want foreign forces in the country after they return to power after two decades of war.
Still, Qatari special forces are currently providing security around the airport perimeter, diplomats added, while Taliban special forces patrolled outside.
Countries have so far been reluctant to formally recognize the Taliban government, accusing the group of backtracking on promises to defend the rights of women and minorities.
Yet Qatari officials have called for greater international engagement with the Taliban to prevent impoverished Afghanistan from sliding into a humanitarian crisis. Gulf states have also expressed concern that the US withdrawal would allow al-Qaeda to regain a foothold in Afghanistan.
While there are few business advantages for any operator, the airport would provide an indispensable source of information on movements within and outside the country, according to the four diplomats, who said that since the withdrawal many countries lacked real-time information. .
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have enjoyed a strained relationship for years as they vie for regional influence.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and their allies boycotted Qatar for more than three years, severing political, trade and transport ties, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism – a charge it denies. The dispute was resolved in January of this year.
Qatar has long been the gateway for the Taliban, with Doha housing the group’s political office since 2013 and negotiations with the United States in early 2020 that led to the withdrawal.
Last week, Qatari officials strengthened their position by signing an agreement to represent US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan.
The UAE has also maintained ties with the Taliban, according to two of the diplomats. They said the country had hosted some members of the group in recent years, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who they said had been living in the emirate of Sharjah with his family since at least 2013. Stanikzai is now deputy minister of affairs. foreigners from the Taliban administration.
Al Zaabi did not respond to questions about the UAE’s relationship with Stanikzai. The Taliban did not immediately respond to questions about Stanikzai living in the United Arab Emirates.
The Taliban said this month that the UAE has reopened its embassy in Kabul. The United Arab Emirates did not comment.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by DAILYNEWSCATCH staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)